By | Rachel Brooks
January 17, 2021
Image credit: “File:Mozaffariyeh, Grand Bazzar of Tabriz, IRAN.jpg” by Navid Alizadeh Sadighi is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0
Editorial Note: The views expressed in this interview are the opinions of the guests, which does not necessarily constitute endorsement of the editorial. Guest opinions may not entirely reflect all of the facts on the discussed issues. To learn more about the issues discussed with our guests in this interview, visit our Azerbaijan and Middle East discussion threads to find academia and research from multiple influences.
The abuses and discriminations against Azerbaijani in Iran have followed an apartheid pattern. In this interview, two of our special guests give their personal accounts of the predominantly Persian controlled “one state, one language, one culture” political doctrine.
Our first guest is Babek Chalabiyanli (Chalabi)
Interviewer’s questions/editorial notes are in bold, responses are in plain text.
Please introduce yourself to our audience.
My name is Babek Chalabiyanli (Chalabi) Spokesperson of Azerbaijan National Resistance Organization. I came to the United States in 2012 as a political refugee. I have been living in Washington, D.C. for about nine years.
What is the context of the systematic punishment of Azerbaijani in Iran?
In Iran, the dominant belief is based on Persian cultural and ethnic superiority, so despite the large population of Azerbaijanis in Iran, they are not considered first-class citizens. In my opinion, most of the cultural and ethnic discrimination and oppression against Azerbaijanis originates from here.
According to the national and mother tongue of the population of more than thirty million people in Iran is ignored due to the hegemony of Persian supremacy.
Of course, systematic discrimination against Azerbaijan began during the Pahlavi era, and the current regime continues to do the same despite the 1979 revolution.
In line with the systematic discrimination of the central regime of Iran, thousands of Turkish names of geographical areas, cities, villages have been changed from Turkish to Persian. And in order to destroy the Azerbaijani identity, the Azerbaijani states were divided into different provinces, including Alborz, Hamedan, Qazvin, Ardabil, Zanjan, by removing the prefix of Azerbaijan, leaving only the names of two provinces named East and West Azerbaijan.
The choice of Turkish names is forbidden for Azerbaijani children, but with the insistence of parents, in some cases, after months and sometimes years, they can hardly choose the desired names.
Personally, I changed my name to Babak when I was a student at the Iranian Army University. To change the name in Iran, you have to choose three names and the registry office is the final determinant. The clerk asked me why all three of my chosen names are Turkish? When I saw that he did not accept, I showed him my army ID card and forced him to praise the values of the revolution until he was satisfied. But when I handed over the new ID card with the name “Babak” to the army’s human resources, the army intelligence protection immediately questioned me for choosing a Turkish name.
Well, these are just a few examples of cultural discrimination. Discrimination against Azerbaijan is clearly visible in economic, political, social, historical and other dimensions.
Government construction and industrial investment in the Azerbaijani provinces is extremely low and all of this can be seen in the annual budget bills.
How do the people of Iran respond to the treatment of Azerbaijani in the society?
The systematic humiliation of the Azerbaijani identity in the Iranian society, including joking and humiliating their dialect in the society in the national media, is a clear example of racism prevailing in Iran. When a Turk protests against them, he is immediately accused of Pan-Turkism. It is customary that when you are humiliated, you should dance with your masters so that they may enjoy your humiliation.
Azerbaijani activists and intellectuals have been fighting against the regime for years to oppose Persian supremacy in Iran and the realization of national and ethnic rights. Azerbaijani activists in Iran have been trying to express their demands and protests within the law, but despite peaceful activities. Azerbaijani activists sentenced to long prison terms for illusory reasons. When the people of Azerbaijan staged a nationwide protest against the insult to the Iranian newspaper for more than two weeks in May 2006, they saw themselves alone in the face of the regime’s brutality. Dozens were killed, but no non-Turkish Iranian intellectuals supported them. This is the starting point of the social divide in Iran.
In all political actions since 2006, Azerbaijanis do not support the centrist movements. The green movement is a clear example. When an Azerbaijani activist is arrested, foreign Persian-language media and Iranian human rights activists boycott him as much as they can, and sometimes on the social networks of extremist Iranian nationalists, they condemn the regime for not executing Azerbaijani activists!
Along with the regime, the fascist clashes of the centralist activists of Iran with the Azerbaijani activists have caused the anger of the Azerbaijanis against them. And on the other hand, everyone in Iran knows that without the serious participation of the Azerbaijanis, any change in Iran is almost impossible. Well, the regime is taking advantage of the social divide.
I believe that with mutual respect of Persian and Azerbaijani actors, a common denominator can be found. And it is more on the shoulders of Persian politicians to extend a hand of friendship to Azerbaijan
How does the regime justify this abuse when many Azerbaijani hold public offices?
During my research in 2016 on the role of Turks in the system of the Islamic Republic of Iran, I came to the conclusion that the slogan of the effective presence of Turks in the system of Iran is nothing more than a claim. The presence of Turks in different classes of the Iranian political system due to their population may be more than the Kurds and Arabs but compared to the Persians and their percentage of the population, the number of Turks in decision-making and sensitive institutions is very low.
Secondly, the Turks in the Iranian system must accept the Persian supremacy with all their might and refrain from emphasizing their Turkish identity, otherwise they will be angered by the regime and will face accusations such as pan-Turkism and spying for Israel and the United States. One of the interrogators interpreted me as a Turk of Israel, I asked him what you mean by that? He said that I am also a Turk, but the Turk of Velayat-e-Faqih means the Iranian Turk. But when you (I) consider yourself a Turk, you want to say that you are close to the people of the Republic of Azerbaijan. All of this is fabricated by the Zionist regime.
Our next guest is Macit Araz, an Azerbaijani activist living in Ankara. Araz weighed in on the same questions we presented to Mr. Chalabi. Araz made note of the discrimination of Turkic Iranians, as well as gave some background on the shift of ethnic control in the 1920s.
The Azerbaijani society and Turkic origin citizens, in general, are in a contradictory situation in today’s Iran due to the complex historical process they lived in and the multi-layered identity they have. Since Azerbaijanis had been the dominant element in the state for centuries, they did not need to develop nationalism for their own and ruled the country through religious identity.
With the domination of Persian nationalism in the country in 1925, Azerbaijani society lost its characteristic of being the dominant element and a gradually developing centrifugal trend began to emerge. But most Azerbaijanis also remained firmly loyal to their Shiite identity.
After 1925, Azerbaijani Turks were gradually excluded from the state, and their cultural and civil assets were tried to be forgotten.
After 1990, due to many internal and external factors, political Islam began to lose legitimacy in the eyes of Iranian citizens. As a result, ethnic nationalism became stronger. In parallel with other ethnical groups, Azerbaijanis transformed a local political movement that existed since 1905 into a rising national movement. During this period, they had an intense interaction with the independent Republic of Azerbaijan.
The Iranian state, which sees the movement of Azerbaijanis as a separatist movement, punishes Azerbaijani activists. Persian nationalists in opposition support the regime in this regard. In fact, in a sense of political stand, they mostly behave harsher than the regime. The first priority for them is the territorial integrity of Iran.
The relationship between the Azerbaijani society and the regime and Persian nationalists is constantly getting tense, which has an impact on other Turkic origin citizens. During the second Karabakh war, this tension saw one of its climaxes. The more this tension increases, the more the Iranian regime excludes the Turks. The number of Azerbaijanis at the top of the regime is decreasing continuously (now it is at the lowest level in the country’s history due to some studies) and the punishment of Azerbaijani activists is getting harsher.